Boo!

A clarification, since some people were confused: Lior is not responsible for providing the URL that triggered Tuesday’s rant about ebook vendors disemboweling the self-publishing market. He’s responsible for the URL behind my next rant. That exercise in curmudgeonality is now scheduled for next Tuesday so that I can bring you the following rare cheerful post.

Happy Halloween! (Relax, it’s not a baseball post.)

Yes, I know it’s two weeks early, but any holiday dedicated to the celebration of pranks and candy is worth a bit of build-up. Sure, April Fools Day is fun, but it doesn’t offer candy. It’s also a bit short on iconic mascots, so it’s got a lot of catching up to do. But I digress.

According to the real estate mavens at Zillow, San Francisco is the best city in the US for trick-or-treating for the third straight year. Noe Valley has captured the crown as the best neighborhood. Five of the top ten cities are on the West Coast, and three more are on the East Coat. I sense a marketing opportunity here: any airlines want to offer special “Trick or Treat” fares to parents in the middle of the country who want to give their underprivileged children a top-end Halloween experience?

Zillow’s rankings are based equally on their own Home Value Index, population density, local crime statistics, and Walkscore’s ranking*. That last one is clearly why my own neighborhood will never make the list. Our walkability score is 43 (out of 100) and should probably be even lower, given the lack of sidewalks in much of the neighborhood. (Side question: which is worse: no sidewalk or a sidewalk that just suddenly ends in mid-block? We’ve got both!)

* Edited 2 April 2018 to reflect Walk Score’s acquisition by Redfin. Note, by the way, that in the four and a half years since this post was written, our Walk Score has dropped from 43 to 34. At this rate, by 2030 our score should have dropped to zero, even if San Francisco Bay hasn’t risen to our doorstep.

We never get more than a handful of trick-or-treaters, unfortunately. The first couple of years after we moved in, we decorated the front gate and porch in the hope of encouraging visitors, but the results were so disappointing that we haven’t put up even the giant stuffed spider for a couple of years. In its absence, the regular spiders have stepped up to help out: large, ornate webs stretched across the entire width of the path from the gate to the front door are common. Despite their efforts, though, the spiders have yet to catch a single costumed urchin. Perhaps we’ll try decorating again this year in a bid to improve on last year’s visitor count: zero. If we hand out enough candy, maybe we can slow the kids down enough to give the spiders a fighting chance.

We’re charter members of the school of thought that says you should offer the kind of candy you would want to eat yourself — given the low turnout, it’s self-defense. Of course, these days we don’t eat as much candy as we used to (damn health-consciousness!), so we do still have some left-over Kit-Kat bars from last year. They’re still edible (I had one last night, just to make sure), but I suppose it could be seen as tacky if we handed them out this year, even if we pushed the tie-in with Android. (It’s an open question, by the way, whether Android 4.4 will be out before Halloween. There’s some speculation that the government shutdown may be delaying FCC approval of the Nexus 5 and the rumored Google watch that are expected to be released alongside Kit-Kat.)

OK, I can’t be totally curmudgeon-free: my perusal of Google suggests that the most popular costumes this year are going to be zombies, Breaking Bad, and Miley Cyrus. Inevitable, I suppose. Just please, a few requests:

  1. Don’t combine them. Anyone showing up dressed as Zombie Cyrus gets a lump of coal. I’m serious about this, kids. There’s a bag of Kingsford right next to the door.
  2. No twerking. Do I even need to expand on this?
  3. Keep contemporary community standards in mind. Nude five-year-olds carrying wrecking balls are not cute, mmkay?.
  4. Don’t be surprised if people look blankly at your costume. The odds are good that I’m not the only person in the world who wouldn’t recognize the ultimate Breaking Bad tribute costume.

You may be surprised to learn that I’m not the kind of curmudgeon who believes that there’s an upper age limit for trick-or-treating. However, I do insist that if you are 16 or older, you put in some significant effort on your costume. Note that I used the word “effort”, not “money”. Think and build, don’t buy.

Finally, I’ll be giving special bonus candy to any nude trick-or-treaters who swing in on a real wrecking ball — accompanied by a claim for damages for anyone who hits the fence or house.

Swoosh!

We’re back to Google’s hot searches today. I know we just hit it last week, but something popped up that struck me as interesting. (There’s probably a blog post in why peeking at someone else’s searches is so fascinating. This isn’t that post.)

As we’ve discussed in the past, top searches tend to fall into a few recurring categories. Chief among these are sports and partially-dressed women. Monday’s top searches are such a classic example that I had to share it with you. Here’s the top five:

  1. Raiders (for those of you who don’t follow sports, that’s the Oakland Raiders American football team)
  2. Scarlett Johansson (let’s just note that Google’s thumbnail image for this search shows her in a skin-toned tank top and move on)
  3. Atlanta Falcons (another American football team)
  4. Red Sox (over to baseball)
  5. Presidents Cup Streaker (yes, a nearly nude woman ran onto the course at a golf match)

So in the top five results, we have four sporting events and two partially-clad women. So why did I find this interesting? Well, mostly because the streaker only made it to Number Five. Why didn’t an event that combined sports and bare bodies rank higher in the American psyche?

I don’t have any definitive answers for the question, but I do have some ideas.

  • People are bored with streakers – It’s possible. Certainly the pictures of the event seem to include a number of bored-looking spectators. There may be a certain amount of editorial bias in the selection of still photos, though: the videos show more interested-looking onlookers. More generally, Google’s historic results show a definite downward trend in searches for streakers over the past decade.
  • Maybe it’s just Americans losing interest – Google’s trend data points out that the most searches for streakers come from New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. Maybe it’s only Americans who are bored with streakers. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald traces streaking back to London in 1799. It’s only reasonable that members of the late, great British Empire would take a proprietary interest in keeping the tradition alive. On the other hand, Canada and India show even less interest than the U.S.
  • It’s golf – I had to suggest it, since golf is far from the most popular spectator sport. But the fact that the Presidents Cup made the top searches list last week without a streaker’s involvement implies that someone (actually, quite a few someones) is paying attention to golf.
  • She wasn’t nude – Frankly, this is the most convincing theory to me. Once people heard that she was wearing a thong and (as one news report put it) “strategically placed red, white and blue stickers”, they lost interest.

Obviously, more data is necessary. We need to do some controlled experiments. By varying the types of events streaked at and the amount of clothing that the streakers wear, we can begin eliminating some of the possibilities above. We do need to control the other variables, though. Age and sex of the streaker seem likely to skew the response (though that might be the subject of another set of experiments). Since it seems unlikely that Ms Webster, the Presidents Cup streaker, will be available for the complete run of experiments, we’re going to need some volunteers. Women in their early 20s who are willing to bare some-or-all in the name of SCIENCE! are invited to drop a line to their local university. Psychology PhD candidates are standing by.

You’re Searching For What?

Well, that’s no surprise.

The number one search on Google today is for iOS 7. Because there’s such a small number of sites with any information about Apple’s latest OS, and there’s been little, if any, public discussion of the new features, the release date, or how to install it, the public has an insatiable need for all the details today.

Seriously, WTF? IOS 7 articles have been swamping the Web for weeks, and it’s only now that it’s available to install that people are searching for it? Over five million searches today and it didn’t even make 50,000 yesterday to crack the top searches list.

Can we add procrastination to the list of society’s ills, along with short attention spans and leaving baseball games before they end?

In other search-related news, yesterday “Grand Theft Auto 5” was number four on Google’s list — and “GTA 5 Cheats” was number six, with nearly as many searches.* Today, “GTA 5 Cheats” has moved up to number five, but the game itself has dropped off of the list. I conclude that the people who don’t cheat at video games are busy downloading iOS 7 today. Presumably the cheaters are Android users.

* Am I the only one who finds it amusing that the number five search was another automotive simulation: “NASCAR”?

What else is going on in the wacky world of searching?

The number two search today is “Scott Eastwood”. Clearly, there’s great interest in topless males — more than in topless females, as January Jones is well behind at number seven. Maybe it’s just breast exhaustion? Yesterday searchers were deeply into Christina Milian’s nipple-revealing tank top, after all. They were also eagerly hunting for intel on Emily Ratajkowski, nude star of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video.

It looks like the world’s interest in the Washington Navy Yard shooting has faded. Yesterday’s number one search, “Aaron Alexis”, has fallen off of the list completely today. Did I mention “short attention spans”? I did? Oh, good.

Now that I think about it, three of today’s top ten searches are for specific celebrities, and another three are for movies and TV shows. Can we also add “celebrity obsession” to the list?

I was hoping that the above were American problems, but unfortunately not. The top three searches in the UK are “iOS 7”, “GTA 5 cheats”, and “Tour of Britain”. At least the British are interested in a bicycle race. That’s something.

Canadians: “iOS 7”, “OC Transpo”, and “Ottawa Citizen”. Apple leads a bus/train accident and a murder by an order of magnitude. And Scott Eastwood is in there at number five. Scott, pleas put your shirt back on, so Canadians can get back to cheating on video games.

In Japan, iOS 7 is trailing slightly behind pop group AKB48 for the public’s attention. Go, Japan, go!

And in India, iOS 7 is drawing five times as much attention as actor Dilip Kumar.

“I blame society” has become a cliché, and doesn’t really work as an excuse for aberrant behaviour today, so let’s try a different theory: clearly Google is broken. Please join me in attempting to fix it by spending the rest of the day in using it the way it was intended: searching for cat videos. Just watch out for Nyan Cat.

FSRs

As I write this, Kaja is snoozing in Maggie’s desk chair. Kokoro is snoring on the bed. Yuki and Rhubarb are dozing on the stairs. And Watanuki is curled up with his magic banana, sleeping on the dining room floor.

Notice a pattern here? Yeah, I’m the only one awake in the house. A minor miracle, given the number of Feline Sleep Rays (FSRs) being generated.

Cats have a near-magical ability to force even the most alert human to pass out within minutes. It’s simple: sit down with a cat in your lap. Pat the cat until he or she relaxes and goes to sleep. Almost instantly, your eyelids will begin to droop; shortly after, your chin will be bouncing off of your chest.

Frighteningly, the cat doesn’t actually need to be in your lap. A cat sleeping on chair across the room is nearly as effective as one in contact with you. My own research suggests that unlike Wi-Fi, the strength of the signal is not attenuated by passing through walls. Even worse, the FSRs are apparently not radiated. Radiated electromagnetic signals weaken as a factor of the square of the distance (double the distance and the strength drops to a quarter). FSRs retain an astonishing 90% of their power across the length of the typical home. That suggests that they are actually focused beams directed as specific targets, rather than general broadcasts. They don’t appear to track moving targets well: you can fight off the effect of an FSR by moving around. As soon as you stop moving, though, the FSR will reacquire its target (you).

Interestingly, there seems to be an inverse relationship between feline size and the ability to generate FSRs: on average, kitten-generated rays are 4.2 times as strong as those produced by fully-grown felines. Current scientific speculation is centered around the well-known fact that kittens purr much more loudly than adults; studies suggest that there may be a sub-sonic audio component to the FSR which is produced through a mechanism similar to purring.

With all of their awesome potency, why don’t more people know about FSRs? Conspiracy theories that the CIA and FBI are hiding information about FSRs to cover up their use in covert operations are clearly nonsense: nobody has ever figured out a way to get a cat to take orders. Can you imagine walking up to a foreign embassy with a kitten in your pocket and then trying to convince it to go to sleep so you can sneak past the guards to plant a bug? My suspicion is that the powerful Ambien® lobby is suppressing the information while they try to figure out how to monetize it. Fortunately, there are significant issues that would have to be overcome to make packaging FSR generators, as the brains behind the bonsai kitten discovered back in 2001.

So now the information is out. If this post fails to show up in Google or vanishes from this site, you’ll know the coverup is factual, and I’m sleeping with the fishes instead of the felines.

Give Me a…

Once again Lior earns brownie points for tossing me the subject of a post. He’s concerned about Google’s new foray into cross-marketing: both that they’ve done it at all, and that they’re doing it with a Swiss company instead of keeping the $$$ in the US.

Lior and I disagree. Of course we do. If we agreed, I’d just post the rant he sent me and be done for the day…

For those of you who don’t follow obsessively follow Android news, the story is that Google surprised the heck out of the tech world yesterday with their announcement of the code name for the next version of the Android OS, due out next month. Techies had been assuming for months that the name would be “Key Lime Pie”. Google, however, went with “KitKat” and has a full cross-marketing agreement in place with the candy bar.

Let’s take the easy one first. The Kit Kat name is, as Lior notes, owned by Nestle, a Swiss company. However, Google’s licensing agreement is with Hershey, an American company that owns the brand in the U.S. So those dollars are nominally staying in the country. On the flip side, there really isn’t any such thing as a national company: with Apple saving big bucks on taxes by routing funds through Ireland, Microsoft buying Nokia’s phone business, and on and on, it’s pretty clear that one country isn’t big enough to hold a tech giant. For that matter, Google Zurich is “Google’s largest engineering office in Europe, the Middle East and Africa”, so you could also think of this deal as being between a pair of Swiss companies.

As for the larger concern, the commercialization of the Android brand, frankly I’m surprised it’s taken this long. Google has passed up a heck of a lot of previous opportunities:

  • Cupcake – The first dessert-themed release and the first public release. Nobody knew it was going to be the start of a tradition at the time, so making a big corporate tie-in would have taken away from the real core message: “Hey, Android is here!”
  • Donut – Don’t even try to tell me that Dunkin’ Donuts wouldn’t have been a good match… Actually, it wouldn’t have been a good match. DD is much better known on the East Coast than the West, and Google would want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible while trying to get global traction for the OS.
  • Éclair – Now we’re starting to get into territory where a cross-brand might have made some sense. There aren’t any well-known eclair manufacturers, though, so a different dessert would have been necessary. How about Eskimo Pie, also a name owned by Nestle?
  • Froyo – The frozen yoghurt market is rather fragmented; I’m not sure Google could have found a single purveyor with the kind of national reach they would have wanted. Fortune cookie, anyone? Wonton Food, Inc. probably would have jumped at the chance.
  • Gingerbread – Again, not a lot of strong national brand identification. Hmm. Gingersnaps? Gelato? Not much better. They might have wanted to sit this one out from a marketing perspective.
  • Honeycomb – Post probably would have killed for the chance at this one. Too bad the cereal isn’t known as a dessert. On the other hand, considering how short Honeycomb’s useful lifespan was, positioning it as a breakfast might have helped.
  • Ice Cream Sandwich – Bay Area techies would have screamed with joy if there had been a deal in place with It’s-It. Too bad the rest of the country would have said “Huh? What’s that?” Mmm, It’s-It.
  • Jelly Bean – Jelly Belly, anyone? Or if Google wanted to boost their appeal in the UK, how about Jelly Baby? Ah for the lost opportunity for Dr. Who offering up Nexus devices. Or the really big name: Jello. Need I say more?

Moving on…

As I said, I’m not that concerned about Google tying themselves to Hershey on this release. Competing on the merits of the OS has taken Android about as far as possible against Apple. Now, with Apple apparently poised to release a lower-cost iPhone, Google needs to start raising Android’s profile with the non-techie public. “Like an iPhone, but cheaper” isn’t going to fly. “Tasty” will.

That said, Google, please don’t tie in every release to a corporate sponsor. No more than every other release, OK? Do that, and I’ll look forward to Lollipop/Lemon Bar/Lemon Meringue Pie just as eagerly as I look forward to Mounds/Mars Bar/M&M.

Oh, and how’s about you stick with products whose owners spell them consistently? I’m not looking forward to the next year’s religious wars over whether it’s “Kit Kat” or “KitKat”.

You Could Look It Up

Lior strikes again. He seems to have a knack for finding articles I want to talk about. His latest find is this io9 article accusing Google of contributing to the decline of society.

The article points out that Google’s definition of the word “literally” includes the modern usage to mean “not literally, but I feel strongly about it”. The author apparently feels that this is a symbol of the impending collapse of society.

Note that the author seems more concerned about Google’s legitimization of the practice than the actual usage itself, though he seems to fear both. I disagree on both counts.

Face it: language changes. Even in France, where the Académie française has been working to officially define the French language for more than 375 years, the language continues to change and grow. The eighth edition of their dictionary was published in 1935. The ninth edition has been in progress since 1986. Not exactly a sign of a stationary target.

The last really popular English dictionary to document a specific vision of what the language should be (i.e. a prescriptive dictionary) is arguably Noah Webster’s “An American Dictionary of the English Language”, which was published in 1828. Since then, dictionaries have become increasingly descriptive, defining the language as it is actually used. (As a point of reference, the dictionary considered by many to be the ultimate to which all dictionaries should aspire is the Oxford English Dictionary aka “The OED”. It was intended from the beginning to be descriptive, covering every word used in the English language from 1150 AD to the present. The decision to begin the work was made in 1857 and began in 1879. The original schedule called for publication around 1890; over a century and a half later, they’re still at it. Optimistic release schedules did not begin with the software industry.)

So dictionaries, even popular ones, have been documenting how the language is actually used for almost two centuries. Even if that is a sign of the impending end of civilization, Google’s inclusion of the modern usage of “literally” isn’t going to do much to accelerate the arrival of the final collapse. Google isn’t the first to include the modern usage, nor will it be the last. Note that The OED itself has included the modern usage since 2011. Interestingly enough, the “modern” usage actually predates The OED itself: the oldest documented usage comes from 1769.

What about the author’s other point, that the two definitions are contradictory and “that seems like it’s going to be problematic”?

English has been coping with internal contradictions for millennia. I won’t open the “flammable/inflammable” discussion now. I will point out that nobody has experienced personal harm due to the use of “custom” to mean “the normal, common way” and “a special version”. Ditto for the “dust” meaning both “sprinkle fine particles on something” and “remove fine particles from something”.

So even though the modern usage literally makes me grind my teeth, let us sanction its usage. Your choice whether “sanction” means “approve of” or “boycott”.

PS: Lior, your check is literally in the mail.

Orly?

Perhaps you heard about the resort in Florida that partly collapsed this week when a sinkhole opened up underneath it? Did you also hear that the manager took pains to announce that they’re still open for business and guests with reservations (presumably both kinds) should “Come on down”? Seriously!

Fortunately, there were no injuries or deaths in the collapse, thanks at least in part to the actions of the security guard who ran through the building to wake people up and get them outside.

That just makes this particular matching of content to advertising on the Chicago Tribune’s website even more surreal than it might otherwise have been:
orly1

Presumably Google’s algorithms matched keywords such as “injured”, “evacuated”, and “Walt Disney” in determining that the web page was death-related*. One hopes that they’ll fine-tune things a bit.

* What, you hadn’t heard about Walt’s cryogenically-preserved corpse? Legend has it that Walt’s frozen body lies in state somewhere under Disneyland.

More to the point, though, one hopes that Ancestry.com will fine-tune their advertising a bit. I was thrilled at the idea that I could enter my own name and find out how and when I was going to die. Imagine my disappointment when I got to the site and found that they wanted me to input the year and location of my death!
orly2

Still, the site says that not all the information is required, so I went ahead and gave it a try. Apparently I’m going to be busy dying for quite a while.
orly3

“Casey Karp” is, it seems, a popular name. I entered my birth year and place of birth and they still found 141 matching death records. Nice!

That “View Records” button, of course, takes you to a sign-up page where you are encouraged to spend $19.99 per month after your two week trial membership. Note that you must provide payment information in order to create an account. Yup, gotta provide a credit card or PayPal information before you can use your free trial. But that’s OK. Look, they offer a 100% Guarantee that you won’t pay anything today:
orly4

No, I didn’t give them my credit card. I think I’ll be happier not knowing when those 141 deaths are going to find me. Especially given that “Casey” is a nickname; presumably those 141 deaths actually belong to someone else. My real name–including full middle name, which is known only to family, former employers, and the NSA–actually produced 232 matches. That’s more dying than I really want to do. Well, OK, one death is more than I really want, but I understand that, Walt aside, that is the quota.

I’ve stretched this joke about as far as it’ll go without breaking, so I’ll let it go (<snap!>). The ad just pushed one of my hot buttons (grossly oversimplifying something to the point of becoming misleading), and the actual implementation pushed another (concealed auto-billing). It doesn’t help that Ancestry.com is well-known for a confusing cancellation process or that even its apologists concede that they’re experts at concealing little details like total costs in the fine print. (My favorite example is in an opinion piece defending Ancestry.com. Check towards the end of the comments where the guy who wrote the piece says “I think one thing that people familiar with Ancestry.com learn to do is read the fine print because they end up getting burned on stuff like this.” Really? Apparently he considers that sort of deceptive practice acceptable because “they offer such a massive database of information.”)

Another one of John’s signs of the collapse of civil society, I suspect. It’s certainly one of mine.

Bits and Pieces

I’m going to continue Friday’s “short notes” theme with some updates on continuing issues.

Leading off: BART workers are not on strike. No, there isn’t a settlement. Management’s lead negotiator left the table about 8:15 Sunday night, and everyone else knocked off about 15 minutes later. Management asked Governor Brown to impose a 60 day “cooling off period” to block a strike. Instead, he blocked a strike for a week and appointed a three-person panel to “investigate” the talks. During the week-long investigation, both sides will have to present their offers and reasons for supporting or opposing the cooling off period to the board. More details in a story at SFGate. So I was right that there would not be a deal by today, but wrong that there would actually be a strike. I also predicted that a deal would be reached late Wednesday with service resuming on Friday. The governor has charged negotiators to continue meeting while the board investigation continues, so it’s still possible that a settlement could be reached Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Regardless of one’s feelings about labor actions, government intervention, and who’s in the right in this case, it was clearly a good thing the governor stepped in: a truck fire on the freeway Monday morning closed two lanes for hours. Traffic backed up across the bridge and for miles up the freeway. If there had been a BART strike, and all those additional drivers were on the road, the traffic jam probably wouldn’t have cleared up until Labor Day.

Batting second: I was a bit off the mark in my prediction that we would start seeing third-party apps supporting Chromecast last week. A quick check of Google Play shows exactly one app touting Chromecast support. That’s “RemoteCast and it’s in beta. As best I can tell, it’s also not an actual media player, it’s a remote control for whatever content you’re already streaming to your Chromecast. So technically I was right, but from a practical standpoint I was a bit optimistic.

Why was I wrong? The interest is definitely there: I’ve seen several apps listing Chromecast support as “coming soon” and several others whose developers are promising support if they can get their hands on a device. However, Google is deliberately slowing things down. They’re describing the current SDK as a “preview”; apps built with it will, they say, only work with Chromecast devices that have been registered with Google for development and testing. Until they release the final SDK, don’t expect a whole lot of apps available for download.

In the third spot: The leftover sauerkraut has been used up. The “Lemon Chicken Baked on a Bed of Sauerkraut” recipe actually called for the entire remainder of our bottle. It turned out reasonably well, but needs some tinkering. The sauerkraut didn’t add much flavor to the chicken, though the chicken added a fair amount to the sauerkraut. That could probably be fixed by layering the chicken between two layers of ‘kraut instead of setting it on top of a single layer. More spice is a must. If we try it again, we’ll probably up the lemon juice a bit, definitely use more rosemary, and crank up the pepper significantly. Probably worth adding some thyme as well. Still, we enjoyed it enough that we would consider trying it again.

We usually use leftover cooking liquid as the basis for soups and stews, but decided against it this time, largely because it seemed like most of its flavor was coming from the dissolved chicken fat. So we put it out for the four-legged neighbors, who apparently enjoyed it immensely, as the bowl was darn near polished. We suspect it went mostly to the raccoons, which is fine: that means more of the cat food went to the cats.

Batting cleanup: It’s been very quiet on the Bay Bridge front lately. The only information I’ve seen is a note from Matier and Ross about the “shim” proposal and the swiftly decreasing likelihood of the bridge opening Labor Day weekend. They point out that because Caltrans is asking both their seismic review panel and the Federal Highway Administration for their opinions of the proposal, the soonest they could get the go-ahead would be mid-August. Caltrans would then need to give a couple of weeks’ notice that the bridge would be closed for four days to switch the lanes from the old bridge to the new. That would be cutting it close. Adding to the pressure against a Labor Day weekend opening is the fact that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission–the master overseer of the bridge project–is on summer vacation until after Labor Day. So all-in-all the prospects for a quick-fix-assisted opening seem dim.

Random thought: does it seem suspicious to you all that the BART fiasco has completely driven the Bolt Botch out of the news? Granted that BART contract negotiations are always messy, but this time around it seems like both sides have gone out of their way to foul things up. Anyone think Caltrans might have been “encouraging” negotiators’ missteps to draw the public’s attention elsewhere while they try to figure out where to pin the donkey’s tail of blame? Not saying they have, but it does have a bit of a “tin foil beanie” feel about it.

Chromecast

As promised: Chromecast.

First, let’s do the obligatory summary of what it does and doesn’t do and the comparison to Apple TV/AirPlay. Grossly oversimplified: with AirPlay, all content is played on your device and displayed on the TV. In other words, your iPhone connects to (for example) YouTube, downloads the video, decodes it, and ships the decoded stream via wifi to the Apple TV box, which then displays it on the TV. For the most part, Chromecast works differently. Your phone goes to YouTube and displays the page locally except for the video. It sends the URL of the video via wifi to the Chromecast, which then establishes its own connection to YouTube, downloads, decodes, and displays the video on the TV. This is why you can start the video playing and then close YouTube or search for another video on the phone. This is also why apps need to be updated to use Chromecast: they need to be modified to send the video URL to the device; in the AirPlay world, the functionality to send the audio and video to the Apple TV instead of the screen is handled by the OS, so the app doesn’t need to be modified to use it.

With that out of the way, let’s move on.

As I said on Friday, the Chromecast is the mysterious “Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy” device. Douglas Adams’ guide had the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover; Chromecast does not, but Google’s intent is clearly to take all of the panic out of the thought of getting your phone or tablet content onto your TV. The hardest part of the process is opening the box; if you can do that, you’re pretty much set. Take out the gadget, which looks a lot like a fat USB thumb drive. Plug it into your TV’s HDMI port. Plug in the USB cable for power. Turn on the TV. At this point you have a choice: you can use your computer to go to a URL displayed on the TV or you can launch a Chromecast app on your phone or tablet. Accept the Terms and Conditions (more on this later), choose your wifi network, and confirm that you want to activate the device, and you’re done.

I didn’t have an opportunity to see how gracefully the setup process handles a failure to activate the device (for example if your wifi cuts out at the wrong moment), but there are so few steps involved that it should be simple enough to handle it cleanly. (Usual disclaimers about “should be” in the computer world apply, naturally.)

Once you’re set up, Chromecast works as advertised. I played a few tracks from Google Play Music, which sounded as good as my not-too-spectacular speaker system could make them. I also watched an episode of “Wonders of the Solar System” (a freebie from Google Play Movies & TV). It streamed in excellent 1080p high definition and looked great. There were no dropouts, skips, or pauses throughout the 58 minute show, which is a minor miracle given some of my recent cable internet hiccups.

I also tried out a couple of YouTube videos, which also worked quite nicely. Resolution is, of course, constrained by the source material. An old, low resolution capture of a 70s TV show isn’t going to look good on your TV no matter what, but the Chromecast does a surprisingly decent job of upscaling to 1080p.

There is one area where Chromecast works differently: If you use the Chrome browser on your desktop, you can use Chromecast to display whatever is in your browser on the TV. In this mode, it works like Apple TV: the video is created on the computer and sent to the Chromecast for display. This functionality works very nicely although it’s currently limited to 720p, rather than 1080p. But there is a big red box in the browser interface that says “Beta”, so higher resolution may come later. (A side note: there is also a second mode for the Chrome stream to Chromecast which will send the computer’s entire screen, not just the current Chrome tab. That’s marked as “experimental”, though. I was not surprised that I couldn’t get it to work. If you want to try it yourself, install the “Google Cast” browser extension. Despite the rough edges of the extension itself, installation is as easy as clicking the link and accepting the Terms and Conditions.

Which brings us to the Terms and Conditions. Remember I said earlier I would have more to say about them later? Now is later.

The T&Cs for the Chromecast hardware are pretty much what you would expect. In essence, they give Google the right to keep track of what you’re casting so they can make suggestions and try to sell you more media. Basically the same as what they do with your web searches: track what you do so they can more precisely target their advertising. However, note that the T&Cs for the “stream your browser” and “stream your desktop” Chrome extension give them similar visibility into that stream. I strongly doubt that they’re recording the entirety of your stream–if nothing else, the limited upload bandwidth of most connections would make that problematical, but they could potentially send an occasional screenshot and apply the same image recognition and OCR capabilities that they use elsewhere in an attempt to recognize what you’re streaming. Could they be required to turn that information over if you’re sued by a media company who believes you’re downloading pirated material? Possibly. Could it be copied by the NSA in their quest to ensure that you’re not contemplating terrorism? Almost certainly. Realistically, you’re not any more exposed using Chromecast than you were last week, but it is another avenue of approach. And it does suggest that until we know more about what information Google gets when you do browser streaming, you should probably hold off on using Chromecast to share proprietary corporate information in your meetings.

Which brings me to the final point I wanted to make: Security is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. Once a Chromecast device is on your network it’s visible to every phone, tablet, and computer on your network. There are no controls to limit which devices can send content to each Chromecast and nothing to prevent one user from jumping to the head of the queue. This is the latest version of fighting over the TV remote. And then there are the issues around having multiple Chromecasts on the network. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to accidentally select the wrong device and send your age-inappropriate shows to the kids’ TV. Or for someone to slip an extra Chromecast onto the corporate network and see what gets accidentally routed to it.

Sure, I’m exaggerating the risks a bit, but they do exist. I figure it’s a safer approach than ignoring them.

OK, this is getting long. Let me sum up:

Chromecast is far and away Google’s best effort to date at getting into your living room, miles ahead of Google TV and light years ahead of the never-released Nexus Q. It’s of limited utility until third-party media providers other than Netflix update their apps to support it (Slingbox and MLB.TV, I’m looking at you), but Google picked the right price point: $35 puts it into the “impulse buy” category. I expect that most of the big providers are working on updates now. I’m keeping mine hooked up in the expectation that it will move from “Hey, that’s cool” to “Pretty damn useful” within the next couple of months.

Theft Detection

Sort of a painful post today. I hate to publish a downer about Google right after the neutral-to-good things I said yesterday, but putting it off doesn’t make it any better.

There’s an interesting story on The Verge about Google uncovering a ring of Chinese car thieves.

The gist of it is that the thieves would take pictures of cars parked on the street and use the photos in ads offering the cars for sale. When they found a buyer, they would go steal the car, take the buyer’s money, and leave him to deal with the repercussions of having purchased stolen merchandise. It’s a clever scam: the JIT procurement processes means that the car probably doesn’t get reported as stolen until after the deal is done, and the delays built into the Chinese banking system apparently make it almost impossible for the buyer to stop payment–and give the thieves several days to make their getaway.

So what’s the Google connection? It seems that when they were updating their tools for detecting fraudulent ads in their AdWords network, a bunch of used car ads were getting flagged alongside the expected ads for counterfeit designer goods and phishing schemes. Nobody was sure why, as the ads didn’t appear significantly different than other ads for used merchandise that didn’t get flagged. In fact, as far as I can tell from the article, nobody is still quite sure exactly what caused the fraud flag to be set. There are some obvious clues, most notably a pattern of quick buys from new accounts. But because the main algorithm incorporates its own feedback loop, using the results of past runs as input for new runs, the specific combination of pieces of information is obscure, to say the least.

Of course, there really isn’t much Google can do when they spot a fraudster in China. They can delete the ad from AdWords, but that’s about it. Their relationship with China is rather rocky, making the sort of fast, targeted communication necessary to catch the scammers somewhere between “difficult” and “impossible”.

But they’re spotting crime, and there are other countries where Google has better access. This is a good thing, right?

Well, no. Even without considering the question of false positives–not everything that gets flagged as fraudulent will actually turn out to be an actual crime–consider this quote from AdWord’s director David Baker: “There’s no one thing or even a handful of things. It’s thousands of pieces of information in aggregate.” In other words, it’s Google’s massive database of information about who is doing what using their system.

This is, of course, exactly the same database that the NSA and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies are accessing in secret. Do you really want Google being forced to produce a list of suspected terrorists based on advertising history? Keep in mind that the database doesn’t just include the ad buyers, it also includes who sees which ads, what pages the ads were shown on, and whether the viewer clicked on them. Are you confident that your name won’t show up on the list?

Sure you’re OK with that risk–terrorism is pretty bad stuff, after all? Consider the FBI’s definition of terrorism: “…the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”. “Any segment” could be as small as one or two people, which means it could apply to breaking windows during a protest (see, for example the recent protests in Oakland over the Zimmerman trial verdict). I’m not the only one who thinks this is a legitimate risk. As far back as 2002, the ACLU pointed out that Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, and WTO protesters were at risk for being treated as terrorists. Open Salon pointed out that the Department of Defense explicitly defines protests as “low-level terrorism” and that definition was used in responding to the 2008 “RNC Welcoming Committee” protests.

Still totally confident that your name isn’t going to show up on the suspect list? Let’s face it: if you came to this post via a Google or Bing search, you’re going to be on that list. Chances are good that even if you just have this blog bookmarked, a simple demand that WordPress turn over their activity logs would include enough information for you to be tied to your other web actions and identified.

And none of this discussion even considers the possibility of scope creep. If the NSA can use this approach to fight terrorism, who’s to say that the local police can’t use it to fight serious crimes like rape and murder? And once that door is open, history shows that other crimes won’t be far behind. Fraud (remember where this discussion started?), theft, and even driving violations could be next).

I implied back at the beginning of this post that it’s Google’s problem. It is and it isn’t. As with the NSA’s reported surveillance activities to date, Google wouldn’t have a whole lot of choice about cooperating with a demand for such materials. It’s their problem, but it’s ours too. And there isn’t any more of a good solution for this part of the problem than the rest of it.